Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

Governance and Politics: A Comparison of Universities in Egypt

May 18, 2010 8 Comments

By Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, Cairo University

Cairo University and the American University in Cairo are quite opposites in many respects, but the national environment surrounding them casts its shadows over both, making them share certain features in common. One is a national Egyptian public university, initially established through a voluntary non-governmental effort as part of a grand enterprise of national renaissance. The other is an American institution established decades later, partly to diffuse American values in the Middle East.

At present, Cairo University is a much larger organization, claiming three other campuses, two of which are in Egypt and the third one in Sudan, and sports no less than twenty faculties and five graduate institutes and over 187000 students, whereas the American University has no more than five schools and seven research centers and a student body of 5550, or 2.9% of the student body at Cairo University. While the faculty of Cairo University numbers 6822 university teachers, and 3967 teaching assistants the AUC claims only 384 full time teachers and 426 part timers, university assistants excluded. Cairo University offers education in a large number of fields, from Arabic language to medicine, agriculture and nuclear physics, while the American University in Cairo is largely a liberal arts institution, limiting its education mostly to social science, humanities, and business administration with only a small number of students specializing in science or engineering.

The two universities encourage their respective faculties to engage in research through their research centers. AUC has nine research centers, but only three of them are known to carry out serious research projects. Cairo University claims more than 150 research centers– fourteen are university wide entities while 134 centers are affiliated to specific faculties. Apart from the few university-wide research centers, shortage of administrative and financial resources limits the capacity of faculty-based research centers to carry out serious research projects. At present, the two universities are working on ambitious future projects. This includes a Ph.D. program in science and engineering at the AUC, and adding a large new campus in the satellite October City in the case of Cairo University.

Despite these differences, Egyptian society and political system impact the AUC in important respects. Those who are familiar with it find it less American and more Egyptian in character. This could be seen in the constraints under which the two institutions labor. But to understand such impact of the environment, it is important first to compare the administrative structure of the two universities, and examine how they are governed.

Two Models of Administration

Cairo University, since its establishment as a private university in 1908, and even after its transformation into a public university in 1925, has been modeled on French universities, being divided into separate faculties, initially four in number expanding to twenty three later. The American University in Cairo, on the other hand adopted, naturally, the model of US universities being divided until recently into departments each composed of several units. However, the departments were integrated in five schools few years ago, with a logic not always easy to discern. The schools of Humanities and Social Science, Sciences and Engineering, and English and Arabic Programs brought together disciplines that are close to each other but  a fourth school installed Communications and Mass Media under the same roof with departments of Economics, Accounting and Business Administration!! The newly-established Global Affairs and Public Policy School could not separate more than three departments from the older schools, namely Mass Communication, Public Administration and Business, despite ambitions of its founding dean to persuade other departments, particularly Political Science and Economics to join.

The highest authority in each university is its governing council , called at the American University the Board of Trustees, and at CU simply the University Council. There is an important difference between these two bodies. The Board of Trustees of the AUC is composed largely of non-academics, usually thirty five members most of them are US citizens including a good number of business people and former officials of the US government, whereas the University Council at CU is composed almost exclusively of academics, deans of faculties, the President of the University and his three vice- presidents and four other members, chosen from public figures with an educational background. These latter are usually former university professors who had joined the cabinet or had assumed other senior posts in the government.

Another difference between the two relates to the degree of autonomy each has in running its own affairs. The Board of Trustees of the AUC is subject to no external authority whereas Cairo University, being a public university, is a member of the Supreme Council of Universities headed by the Minister of Higher Education. The Council is composed of all presidents of public universities, five members with expertise on questions of higher education and public affairs in addition to the Secretary General of the Supreme Council Whatever the Supreme Council of Universities decides becomes binding to all public universities. Meetings of the Council are chaired by the Minister of Higher Education or the most senior university president in his absence. The most important function of the Council, according to the Law on Organization of Universities is to draw up the general policy on higher education and scientific research and to direct it in a way that corresponds to the country’s needs, and facilitate accomplishment of the national, social, educational and scientific objectives. Another function is to coordinate systems of study, examination and scientific degrees in universities. A third function is to formulate rules and determine numbers of new students to be admitted to each university. This latter function often gives rise to heated debate between the Minister of Higher Education and Presidents of universities. The Minister, careful not to antagonize public opinion, would like universities to admit a larger number of students.  University presidents, on the other hand, are concerned that quality of education may suffer when the number of students far exceeds the capacity of their universities in terms of size and number of classrooms, professors and laboratories. Views of the Minister usually prevail in meetings of the Supreme Council of Universities.

At the top of each university there is a President, assisted by a number of Vice-Presidents. The number of those Vice-Presidents is no less than three for Cairo University. Their areas of competence vary. Those of Cairo University are in charge of student affairs, graduate studies and research, and community and environment affairs. At the American University while one of the Vice-Presidents is in charge of student affairs, the three others have functions different from those of Cairo University, one is the provost, another is in charge of development and a third one looks after finance and administration. Being a foreign university in Egypt, only one of the four Vice-Presidents is Egyptian, who is in charge of student affairs. Within the senior administration of the university another Egyptian acts as a Counselor. The top leadership of Cairo University is all Egyptian at present, although there was a time in its early years when its top leadership had a number of foreign professors.

In all large institutions, a middle level management is required, and this is constituted in the two universities by Heads of Departments and Deans of Faculties.  At Cairo University, each dean is assisted by three Vice-Deans, those in charge of student affairs, graduate studies and research, and environment and community affairs. The AUC, being a smaller institution, its statutes do not provide for any posts of Vice-Deans. As the two universities are divided into faculties, and each faculty in turn is divided into departments, Deans are assisted in the running of the faculties by Heads of Departments.

The two universities share one feature in the internal management of department and faculties. These should be self-managed units. Their affairs are decided by their members. Departmental meetings run the major business of the department, leaving the Head of the Department with the responsibility for taking care of daily management. The size again dictates differences in the composition of departmental councils. At Cairo University, all full and associate professors are members of their departmental councils. Assistant professors are represented by no more than five of them, chosen on a rotation basis every academic year. Departmental meetings of AUC are open to all full-time faculty members. Faculty Councils are more limited in membership in both universities. Their meetings are attended by Heads of Departments and at Cairo University who are joined by a select number of professors chosen on a rotation basis including one associate professor in addition to the Dean and the Vice-Deans.

The two universities do not limit their mission to education but consider research to be an important part of their activities. However, while the AUC has seven research centers, the most active being one for desert research and a second for social research, Cairo University claims a large number of research centers covering diverse fields ranging from cancer and laser research to development and future studies. Ten research centers are subordinated directly to the president of CU while 131 are faculty research centers. Faculties of medicine, agriculture and engineering claim the largest number of these centers. Among social science and humanities faculties, the Faculty of Economics and Political Science has the largest number of research centers.

Research centers at the two universities enjoy a large degree of autonomy. Each center is headed by a director, who is its chief executive officer. The policy-making body is the board of administration of the Center made up of academics and non-academics with a relevant background chosen usually from among senior officials of the government, businesspeople and public figures.

Each university has devised specific mechanisms for the airing of grievances of its faculty and offering them a chance to express their views on how the university should be run. In the case of Cairo University, all faculty are members of a university professors club, run by an elected board. The club undertakes a host of activities of a trade union character. At the American University, there is no such arrangement but monthly meetings of the University Senate allow its faculty to make their views known to the administration. Elections of Cairo University Professors Club used to be free and open until the Ministry of Solidarity, in charge of  the legality of activities of all NGO’s in the country claimed that the council elections were invalid and called for new elections in which all members of the dissolved council were barred from running. The government did not like the dissolved council because it was dominated by professors belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned organization.

Finally, students at the two universities have their own organizations and elected representatives. A liberal presidential decree 1976 was amended in 1979   in a  way that changed the composition of the student body in Egyptian public universities, making  a university professor  a “patron” for each committee in the student union, and giving the majority in the leading organs of student bodies, at both faculty and university levels, to university professors and other university officials in their capacity as supervisors of student activities . American University students have no faculty members sitting in meetings of their elected council. They have however to seek guidance from an  adviser, who is  the Dean of Students.

Cairo University, however, has a unique institution which has no equivalent at the AUC. In terms of the University bylaw, each department holds a scientific conference every year to examine its scientific plan and to suggest possible amendments in the curricula. This annual scientific conference is open to all the faculty of the department including assistant professors, teaching assistants as well as representatives of students.

The Question of Governance[1]

It might be difficult, or even unnecessary to examine all aspects of the internal governance in the two institutions, but an analysis of a number of the most telling issues would suffice to highlight the distinctive features of each. The four issues are participation in governance, appointment of academic staff particularly Heads of Departments, Deans of Faculties and Presidents of Universities, decision-making about the curriculum, and academic freedom.

Universities resemble armies and bureaucracies in one respect, all are hierarchical institutions with rights and duties being dependent on the rank one holds in the institution. Thus, such rights and duties at each university depend very much on the rank one holds, whether one is an ordinary member of a department, Departmental Head or Dean etc. While the American University opens departmental meetings to all departmental members, Cairo University admits only a select group of assistant professors.  The American University on the other hand excludes part time faculty from such meetings even though the latter constitute a large number of the teaching staff, almost  three quarters of the full time faculty. Even among the full time faculty, not all of them are tenured. Crucial decisions in departmental meetings are taken in effect by the tenured faculty, even in the face of opposition from untenured faculty. Top officials at the American University are mostly Americans. Thus, the hierarchy of privilege at the University goes down from tenured foreign faculty at the top, followed by tenured Egyptians, non-tenured faculty members with part time faculty at the bottom. This hierarchy is felt in pay, fringe benefits and even entertainment expenses as well medical insurance offered by the university. No such discrimination is to be found at Cairo University which does not appoint foreign faculty nor part timers. It is only the rank and position which determine rights and duties therein.

The most important post in each of the two universities is that of its President, at least in terms of the daily management of its business. The contrast between the two is greatest when it comes to the method of selection of this official. At Cairo University he is appointed by the President of the Republic in Egypt. The Minister of Higher Education submits to the President of the Republic his candidate or candidates for the post. The President is not necessarily bound by the recommendation of the Minister. Other powerful personalities of the regime could also have their say. Many of them are former professors who could have occupied senior posts in university administration. They would be interested in choosing for the post of President of Egypt’s largest and oldest modern university a person who shares their views, or better still, who is one of their “protégés.” In this way they enhance their share of the distribution of power in an authoritarian regime. It does not seem that any university organ is ever consulted about this choice, not the Cairo University Council, nor the Supreme Council of Universities.

At the American University, on the other hand, when the post of its President becomes vacant for one reason or another, the vacant post is announced in newspapers. A search committee including some university professors and members of the Board of Trustees would examine documents presented by interested candidates in order to produce a short list. Those who are short listed would be invited to visit the university, meet faculty members as well as its administration. Views of the faculty would be communicated to the Board of Trustees who finally takes the decision.

Those who are chosen to be Presidents of Cairo University were all university professors. The current practice is to choose one of the university Vice-Presidents to be the future President. It is difficult to know the criteria for choosing a President at an Egyptian university. Bureaucratic seniority is definitely a major criterion. For this reason, most Presidents were former Deans who were promoted to the rank of university Vice-President. Political loyalty is definitely an important consideration, but it is not enough since a large number of aspiring professors are willing to show their unreserved support for all government policies. Political connections with top leaders of the country can be a decisive factor. Professor Hossam Kamel, the President of Cairo University since 2008, was never a faculty Dean, but he is the brother of the Minister of Communications, who is very close to the Prime Minister. He is also a member of the Supreme Council of Policies within the ruling National Democratic Party, headed by Gamal Mubarak, the son of the country’s President.. He is Cairo University’s twenty fourth President since it became a public university in 1925.

At the American University, on the other hand, being a private university, the Board of Trustees has favored recently people with a good background in fund raising. Thus, the late John Gerhard who passed away in 2003 did serve in the Ford Foundation in Cairo and in Johannesburg . His successor David D. Arnold, who became the tenth President of AUC, has served as Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the New York–based Institute of International Education and had  worked as well for the Ford Foundation serving at one time as its resident representative in India . One of his functions in his former post as director of the IIE was fund raising. The importance of fund raising has increased in recent years. Former Presidents of AUC included diplomats and distinguished Orientalists.

Below the level of President and his Vice-Presidents who are chosen by the President of the University, management of faculties is left to their deans.  In this respect the two universities have one feature in common, namely the appointment of the Deans by the President of each university. However, the division of the American University into faculties is a recent development, and the second layer of university leaders below the all-university level were Heads of Departments. The Law of the Organization of Universities of 1972 (LOU) gave Egyptian professors the right to elect the Dean of their Faculty. Names of the three front runners in such election would be sent to the President of the University who would usually appoint the candidate who got the highest number of votes. This continued to be the case in all faculties which had no less than ten full professors until 1994 when Dr. Hussein Kamel Baha’ El-Din, who was then Minister of Education and Higher Education, and a former professor at the Faculty of Medicine, decided that elections of Deans gave rise to much infighting among professors . He got one of his followers, a member of the People’s Assembly who happened to be a senior official at the Ministry of Education, to amend the Law 143 related to election of deans. Thus, University Presidents, since May 1994, have the privilege of appointing Deans of faculties. The Minister claimed that Deans are also appointed by Presidents of their universities in the UK and USA. He did not mention that they are elected by all the faculty and students in Italy, Spain and France. He failed also to recall that appointments of Presidents and Deans in the USA and UK are decided within the university community and involve much consultation with the faculty and are not a privilege of any government official.

Heads of Departments are elected by full time members of their departments at the American University in Cairo. They are appointed by the Dean at Cairo University. The impact of the change of the method of electing the Dean was soon felt at Cairo University. Under the old system, Deans used to be responsive to demands and suggestions of their faculty. Under the new system, their sole concern is to demonstrate loyalty to the University’s President, even if this runs counter to the legitimate wishes of their colleagues.

The top-down method of administration of university affairs is not always the rule at Cairo University and definitely not at AUC.  All matters related to the curriculum, organization of teaching and administration of examinations are left to departments and faculties. Each department is almost sovereign in terms of decisions concerning such matters. The appointment of new faculty is initiated by the department which decides on the candidate in its meetings, and then the matter is referred to faculty council for approval. This decision would be finally sent to the University Council through its appropriate committee for ratification. The question of curriculum reform has taken much of the time of Cairo University professors and of certain departments at the AUC in recent years. Conferences were held on this matter at Cairo University in 1999, and then later at the level of all national public universities in 2000.

As the organization of the two universities combines elements of internal democracy and administrative authority, relations between the university administration and collective organizations of professors and students are not free from conflict. Since 1984, the Club of Cairo University Professors has been very often at odds with the university administration. In that year the list for the Club submitted by the President of the university, with the president himself at the top, was defeated in the Club’s election in favor of a coalition of leftist and Nasserite professors. The election was a political one, since the late professor Hassan  Hamdy who was then the 15th President of the University was very close to the ruling National Democratic Party. Several of the professors who won had been among those professors who had been transferred from the university to administrative posts in the famous September 1981 Decrees of the late President Anwar Al-Sadat, and were later reinstated in their university jobs by President Mubarak[2]. Relations between the university administration and the Club became hostile, with the government siding with the university administration. State security agents used to watch carefully activities of the Club, considered by them to be a stronghold of opposition.

Two years later, elections of the Club were won by Islamist professors, and relations between the two sides deteriorated even further, with the university administration becoming reluctant to support any initiative taken by the Club. Matters came to a head in late 2009 when the Ministry of Solidarity in charge of monitoring affairs of NGOs, the Club being legally one of these NGO’s, ruled, on doubtful grounds, that elections to the Club’s Council were invalid. Against the opposition of the Club’s Council as well as many professors who do not share the Islamist views of the Club’s Council, the Ministry decided to call new elections in late December 2009. A few days before the elections, all members of the outgoing Council were disqualified from running. A rival so–called Independents List, but dominated by members of the ruling NDP, had no difficulty in winning unopposed. In this way, the Club came under the control of government supporters, for the first time since the historic election of 1984.

The two-and-a-half decades of free elections at the Cairo University Professors’ Club contrasted with the situation in other Egyptian public universities.. At the University of Assuit in Upper Egypt, the conflict ended with the President of the Club being arrested, tried and imprisoned for a few years as punishment for his political activism.[3] Relations between the university professors’ clubs and national university administrations continue to mirror tense relations between the government and the Islamist movement. The Muslim Brothers are politically skillful. They usually manage  to easily win elections in the country, whether national legislative elections or elections to professional syndicates and associations. They are in fact much more successful in elections to bodies whose members belong to the educated middle class. University professors in Egypt belong to this frustrated and rebellious class.

The government has been less tolerant of student activities in national universities. Professors may sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood, careful to adopt peaceful methods in its activities. Students, particularly in Upper Egypt as well as Cairo University, tend to side more with the militant Islamist groups which had taken up arms against the government. The liberal 1976 University by-law allowed free elections for student unions, and offered such unions a large degree of autonomy in organizing extra-curricular activities. The student movement, which had been earlier dominated by Nasserite and Leftist students in the early 1970’s, fell gradually, with government complicity, under Islamist leadership. This development was initially welcomed by Sadat’s government which was not happy with the influence Leftists and Nasserites had among students. Following President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, student unions in many Egyptian universities, including Cairo University, denounced his new overture towards Israel. The liberal student by-law was amended in 1979 to bring student organizations firmly under their professors’ control. Elections for the student body were usually marred by many irregularities, including banning students known to be politically active from running for any post.

Professors and students at the American University in Cairo are much less politicized. The scene there is, therefore, very different from that at Cairo University. Clashes do erupt from time to time between AUC professors and their administration. Differences over professors’ pensions led to the early resignation of Professor Donald McDonald, the eighth President of the AUC. Students sometimes clashed with the university administration over the demand to organize demonstrations at the university, usually to protest Israeli and US policies in the region. The administration often shares students’ feelings, but it is concerned lest their protest lead to ugly confrontations with heavily armed Egyptian riot police, when it moves beyond the university gates.

In recent years, both professors and students have organized protest meetings and marches on university grounds. At AUC protesting students were rarely punished for these activities, but students in Egyptian universities, including at Cairo University could be arrested outside the university or even punished by university administrations. In late April 2010, Cairo University professors organized a protest demonstration in front of offices of the Minister of Higher Education in solidarity with persecuted students.

The Question of Academic Freedom

Academic freedoms, even when they are fully enjoyed, do not go without duties and responsibilities on the part of university professors and administration. The two universities have formal mechanisms to enforce rules of academic honesty and good conduct on members of their faculties Such mechanisms were rarely used in the two universities. In Cairo University, there have been very few cases when such mechanisms were used against professors who violated an informal code of conduct for academic staff, particularly when their “good reputation” was questioned. However, AUC finds itself in a stronger position as it can deny aspiring professors tenure or renewal of their contract.  At Cairo University, a university assistant who gets his Ph.D. is automatically appointed as an Assistant Professor. Such promotion guarantees a lifelong appointment. She or he could continue to teach until beyond retirement age. It is very rare in the two universities that professors are sanctioned for the quality of their teaching, although rules of promotion have been stiffened at Cairo University to ensure that promotion to ranks of Associate and Full Professors is dependent on engagement in research of an acceptable quality. The low pay of Egyptian university professors have led some to seek to improve their income in ways that might be seen to compromise the seriousness and honesty expected from an academic. Such professors, always a minority do their best to “market” their textbooks among the largest number possible of students, making such books the required and only reading for their students. This “option” is not available to the majority of professors who teach a small number of students in their areas of specialization, which might be Latin, Coptic Studies, or even Political Science or Mathematics. The university has no way of controlling this kind of conduct.

The two universities do pay the price of conflicting trends in Egyptian politics. Cairo University Professors Club was dissolved by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in March 1954 as it sided with President Naguib in the famous clash in February–March 1954 over the future of the July 1952 revolution.  The Club sided with what seemed to be a liberal stand by Naguib, who was then supported by political parties of the old regime. Several professors of Cairo University lost their jobs, particularly in the 1950’s, because of their political views. In his clash with several opposition groups in September 1981 President Sadat removed over 60 of those professors, including many from Cairo University. Under President Mubarak, several professors belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested, put on trial, and condemned to years in prison. Cairo University administration did not, or could not, show much sympathy towards these persecuted professors. The American University was put under government administration from 1967 till 1974 because of the tense relations between Egypt and the US due to US open support for Israel.

In the 1990’s, the mounting influence of the Islamist trend in Egypt, and the government’s interpretation of Islam, definitely caused a certain restriction on academic freedom in the two universities. Any views or writings that could be seen incompatible with a conservative interpretation of Islam would cost those who advocate them dearly.

Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid , the Cairo University professor, had his promotion to Full Professor delayed because his promotion committee could not come to a favorable decision. Only when the composition of the committee was changed did he win his promotion. What is deplorable, however, is that the university that promoted him to Fill Professor, at the same time  withdrew all his books from the University Library. Conservative Islsamists launched a character assassination campaign against him, culminmating in the strange decision by a Court of First Instance , supported later by both the Court of Appeals and that of Cassation, to forcefully separate him from his wife, herself a university professor. These developments led him to leave the country for a voluntary exile in the Netherlands. All this had an intimidating effect on professors who share his views.

At the American University, Maxime Rhodinson’s book on Mohammed and Mohammed Shukri’s novel, dealing with the underworld of Morocco, entitled The Plain Bread were also dropped from Sociology and Literature courses because of protests from conservative parents supported by the President of the Republic and the Minister of Higher Education. Didier Moncier, the French instructor who had included Rhodinson’s book in a list of readings for his students could not get renewal of his part time contract with the American University and he had to leave the country. Dr.Samia Mehrez, the professor of literature who included Shukri’s novel in her course was summoned to the office of the President of AUC from the classroom where she was teaching to be told  that the book should be dropped from her course. Protestations of AUC faculty in the last case were completely in vain. Some books were also removed from the AUC Library because a “censor” did not approve their use in teaching. The books related to contemporary Egyptian politics.  The two universities did not demonstrate much courage in the face of such assaults on academic freedom. They simply adjusted to some of the negative features of the country’s politics, instead of defending their role as bastions of freedom of thought.


[1] Part of this section is based on personal observations of the author who taught at the two universities and was quite active in university politics in the two of them.

[2] President Sadat was angry with people who had opposed several of his domestic and foreign policies..On September 5, 1981 he ordered the transfer of  tens of professors and journalists from their jobs in universities and the press to administrative posts and arrested over 1500 persons of all political inclinations and religious beliefs. He was assassinated by a militant Islamist soldiers on October 6, 1981.

[3] Professor Mohammed Habib, former President of Assuit University Professors Club became The Vice-General Guide of Muslim Brothers for roughly 5 years-2005-2010.

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